Women at Sea Symposium 1 July 2016

Seasickness // hopefulness

Sitting in the National Waterfront Museum, Swansea, exactly a week on from the British EU Referendum result. The sun is shining and the sound of nearby traffic and seagulls drifts in through the open side-door.

The general feeling is one of anticipation and collegiality, though with a more somber undercurrent, too. Certainly not dour – amusingly, many of the attendees are in nautical stripes – but a definite air of recent bereavement, the unsettling sensation of having a carpet pulled from beneath you. Whatever your vote, we’ve had a week full of bad news; hope feels fragile.

Jonathan Hsy’s paper, in a two-part plenary led by Dorothy Kim, suggests ‘nausea’ as one of the catchwords we might use to think through our discussions of the woman at sea. He refers to ‘seasickness’ and ’disorientation’, and it strikes me as a good description of the way many ‘Remainers’ are feeling; like Britain (or rather England) had voted, as Kim says, to cast herself adrift.

But the mention of ‘nausea’ also kicks back to a moment 30-minutes or so earlier:

‘When I tell the story, I feel a headache…’

Wahida Khorsand, who has twice been a refugee, earlier apologised for seeming ill-prepared for today’s roundtable; she is fasting for Ramadan and losing sleep. Suddenly, she has remembered what she wanted to say. She describes how when she arrived in the UK she spoke no English; how she has learnt the language from scratch; how isolating and lonely an experience it can be to arrive as a ‘stranger’; and, in this passing comment about the ‘headache’, as she touches her fingertips to her brow, we see how the ‘pain’ of her experience is real, physical.

The women agree that the power of language and writing is part of a therapeutic process, of story-telling, making some sense of their experiences and/or turning them into something different. Suffering can be the most creative energy, Amani Elawad remarks. Hannah Sabatia describes how writing can be a way of lifting the ‘weight’ of deeply troubling memories from her mind and leaving them on the page. ‘Stay there!’ she laughs — the laughter that is sorrow mixed with incredible courage, generosity and kindness. The paper I’m due to give feels inadequate in comparison with what these women have offered — and I am grateful that they are here. And not just here at the symposium.

It was a wonderful decision on the part of our programme organisers, Roberta Magnani, Rachel Moss and Kristi Castleberry, to begin the symposium in this way: the discussion set the tone for the day, in a compelling way. We were reminded of our ethical imperatives as academics. Kim’s plenary underlined the urgent need to decolonise research communities and outputs, offering a positive alternative to the white supremacy that has dominated academies and historiography, above and beyond the relentless ‘no’ we issue to racism. It’s not enough.

Hsy picked up this thread, and it wove its way through the papers: perhaps the sea is not only a physical barrier but also a hopeful space; perhaps Europe can be a site of refuge where transcultural identities can be formed; perhaps the sea might be a liberating, transformative space.

Hope is fragile; but while fraught politics within and between islands and landlocked nations is disorientating and troubling, the idea of a boundless sea as a place of opportunity and liberation seems like one worth thinking on.

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Symposium site here, including the poems of Aliya Khalil, Maria Shafayat, Hannah Sabatia, Sliva Kiki and Amani Elawad: https://womenatsea.wordpress.com

Symposium tweets in Storify form  via Rachel Moss here: https://storify.com/menysnoweballes/women-at-sea